Friday, January 6, 2012

Converts and Birthright

If you're young enough, every conversion candidate thinks about the possibility of going on Birthright. I went on Birthright after my conservative conversion, but I was on a trip organized by an orthodox organization and the specific trip was actually labeled as "modern orthodox." I think that effectively just meant that the trip was shomer Shabbat and kosher l'mehadrin. Despite the label, my group ranged from the mostly-secular to Chabad to Satmar (yes, Satmar).

Personally, I think any convert should consider a more "religious" trip simply because we are (or should be) at a higher level of Jewish literacy than the average Birthright attendee. While I was not orthodox when I signed up for the trip (but I was orthodox by the time I went on the trip), I knew that the regular "This is what Shabbat is!" kind of trip would drive me insane. I would be bored, and I would get frustrated. (I also wanted to avoid any trip of 18 year olds in a country where they could drink for the first time. And the much-discussed sex-in-the-next-sleeping-bag stories of the Bedouin tents. What can I say, I became an old fogey at some point.) While maybe a specialty trip would be more appropriate for you (especially the outdoorsy ones!), a more "religiously-oriented" trip should be considered even by the least traditionally-observant convert from any movement. I believe that the conservative and reform movements also offer "religious" trips for people with a higher level of Jewish education, so an orthodox trip is probably not the only option. You may decide a religious trip isn't for you, but don't write it off immediately because it's "religious." But know that you, as one of the most knowledgeable people on the trip, may end up doing a lot of teaching. Of course, you may avoid the whole issue by going with a Jewish group you're already active in and affiliated with, such as your college's Hillel. 

Those preliminary "do I or don't I?" questions aside, what are the actual procedural issues that can affect converts? As far as I can tell, there are two primary concerns: 1) whether the conversion will be accepted and 2) whether you're within the age range.

The Conversion
Taglit Birthright Israel's policy is that "Eligible individuals are those recognized as Jewish by the Jewish community or by one of the recognized denominations of Judaism..."

Tour providers who are certified to run "Taglit Birthright Israel" must follow Taglit's policies. Anecdotes suggest that some providers who were affiliated with a movement (usually orthodox) did not respect conversions their movement didn't recognize. It seems that Taglit has cleared up that problem. If you want some anecdotal proof, Israel Free Spirit (an orthodox-affiliated provider) allowed me to even go on a specifically "orthodox trip" with a conversion the orthodox movement would not recognize as a valid conversion. And I was treated respectfully and as just as much Jewish as every other person in my group, both before and during my trip. I had to deal with their main office several times to get an appropriate trip for me, and I encountered the same respect of myself as a participant and as a Jew. (And I believe that I worked with the same administrator the Kvetching Editor wrote about, based on her slightly-anonymized timeline of her Birthright issues in the link above.) 

If you encounter issues (and I hope you don't!), contact Taglit with any proof you may have.

The Age Issue
I've known several people who opted themselves out of the Birthright pool because they assumed they were "too old." The trip is for people 18-26, but that's not all the details. You only have to be 26 at the time of registration. There should be exact cut-off dates noted in the FAQ before each registration season. That means that you might actually be 27 when you go on the trip. The point is, as long as you're still 26, don't count yourself out!

The Most Important Thing to Keep in Mind
Birthright registration only opens twice a year, and it's only open for a week or two (I don't remember how long). But if I remember right, they don't advertise the date registration will close. Perhaps it even closes as soon as a certain number of people register. If you're older, register as soon as you physically can. Providers prioritize "older" participants who might otherwise "age out." But it's still worth trying to get as early in the line as you can anyway. 

If you know people who have previously gone on Birthright with the provider you want, ask that person if you can list them as a referral. Most providers will use that as another way to "bump" your application in line. And if you're not very close to aging out, know that you may not get a spot (or be offered a spot you want) for a registration or two. The winter trips tend to be in less demand, so don't count them out even if the scheduling would be more difficult! I've talked to people who were "rejected" as many as 3 times before getting a trip they could take, but most were rejected/unable to go at least once. There's just not enough money for every participant in every season, but I've never met anyone (other than the Kvetching Editor) who didn't make it work in the end.

I hope you get the Birthright trip you want and that you have as wonderful of a time as I did!


  1. Also, there was a gal on our orthodox trip who was a conversion candidate and orthodox observant but was born to a mother who converted reform(thus the need for an orthodox conversion). So, apparently they really do listen to the 'jewish according to some type of judaism'

    I do remember controversy with jews for jesus trying to go on birthright and, well, that didn't go over so well. Sorry to get your hopes up, faithful jews for jesus readers ;)

  2. When I found out about Birthright I kicked myself for not deciding to convert sooner so I could take advantage of it. I'm a bunch of years past the age limit, but when I was first seriously considering conversion I was in my early twenties (and living in Montreal. *That* would have made things a lot easier, let me tell you). I'm not fond of the politics of the state, but no matter what you think of it you can't be a Jew and not have a stake in it. I'll get to Israel someday, I just don't know how yet. Would it be cheesy to say God will provide?

  3. I'm curious as to why you felt the need to include the anecdote about Chaviva (Kvetching Editor). Was that meant as an insult or something like that? I just don't see why it was necessary. Also, I'm a born-Jew, and I'm a tad offended that you'd say converts are at a higher level of Jewish literacy than the "average attendee" of Birthright. This is not to say that converts *aren't* at a high literacy rate at all, as I respect the conversion community so incredibly much for all of the hard, hard work they put into their conversion. It is so true that (no matter the movement of conversion) converts know what they're doing. I just don't think you're considering how hard Jews by birth have worked too-yes, there are many secular Jews who never had the opportunity or desire to expand their Jewish literacy. On the other hand, you may not be recognizing all of the young people (and there are many of us) who have taken an enormous interest in their literacy and are fluent in Hebrew, etc. Coming from a 20 year old herself, I know a huge amount of people, like myself, who are extremely well-versed in literacy and have gone on very religious trips. I'm somewhat insulted that you would refer to Birthright trips for those who did not have the opportunity & money to be better versed in literacy as a "This is Shabbat!" trip. All Birthright trips are fantastic and equal. I don't think it's totally fair to judge based on Jewish denomination or education (or lack thereof). But, at the same time, I do realize that your posts are meant for converts and for that purpose, I think this is very well written and very informative/persuasive. I think everyone, convert or born Jew, should experience Birthright or any trip to Israel. I just thought I'd share the other side. To those considering Birthright- DO IT! :)

  4. Anonymous, I'll address your two points separately:

    A) I'm confused why you think referring to the Kvetching Editor's experience was insulting. It's a fact, one which she has been very public about for years because she was rightfully angry. Because we are both convert bloggers, many of my readers may be familiar with her comments about Birthright (they pop up every now and then, especially if they follow her on Twitter). It would also be incomplete to discuss the convert experience with Birthright when I have a public example of someone who was discouraged away, most likely because of her conversion. It is a common belief among non-orthodox converts that they cannot go on any trip organized by an orthodox organization, which is not the policy. At least, not now. Maybe these public discussion about individual organizers not accepting conversions in violation of Birthright policy forced Birthright to make the organizers toe the line, for all I know.

    B) I admit above that not every trip is "This is Shabbat!" However, Birthright was created specifically FOR the Jews with the most non-existent or tenuous connection to Judaism. It wasn't created for people who went to Hebrew school, can read Hebrew, and still attend shul after bar/bat mitzvah age. Being 20, you may not know very many people who have gone on Birthright. Over the years, I've seen a few dozen of my friends go, almost all of whom were totally unaffiliated Jewishly. On those trips, the Jewish education provided by the staff was of the "This is Shabbat!" kind, and basically the entire group ignored it. (Though it is important to note that the interview process allows the staff to have a taste of the Jewish education level of each individual group and tailor the experience for that.) The trips my friends went on, the people were interested in drinking and hooking up with other participants and the soldiers. Even educated born Jews may appreciate that kind of socialization being the primary activity, but I think that the average new convert (from any movement) who has just finished the conversion process is going to be frustrated by that kind of atmosphere. And that is why I suggest a "religious" trip from one of the movements or going with a group of people you are already a part of.

  5. Anonymous, I remembered something else while eating breakfast. Birthright policies are aimed to weed out many of the more Jewishly-educated Jews (born Jews or those who converted several years before applying). The policies make the gift inapplicable to people who have had certain kinds of trips to Israel. The typical middle school and high school shul youth group trips to Israel would disqualify all the youth on those trips. Other trips can too. These people have purposely fostered a connection to Israel and Judaism (or their parents made them). Since someone else already fostered that connection, there is no need for Birthright to do so.

  6. "The trips my friends went on, the people were interested in drinking and hooking up with other participants and the soldiers" What's wrong with this and how this rules out high Jewish literacy?

  7. "I'm not fond of the politics of the state"
    What exactly do you oppose?

  8. Skylar - I think your suggestions to JBCs for selecting a trip is spot-on. I wish that I had seen this post before I selected my trip, which was awesome for some reasons (meeting my husband being at the top of the list) and very disappointing for others (I found myself frustrated that my current participants were mostly more interested in the more secular experiences).

  9. I'm glad that you decided to write a post about this. I went on Birthright, using my Reform conversion as the basis for eligibility. I picked an orthodox trip. I did run into a bit of a snag when the (Orthodox) Rabbi who was the trip organizer misunderstood me in my interview, and thought that I would have an Orthodox conversion by the time I went on the trip (this was not the case...nor did I ever intend to imply that it was). He ended up lecturing me about it 2 weeks before the departure date. In a panic, I called up Birthright's main office, and said that if he didn't allow me on the trip, to refer him to them and they would take care of it. I emailed this information to him...fully expecting my inclusion on the trip to be taken away; but the situation was never brought up again.

    It was a weird and stressful start; but the Birthright trip itself was really unbelievable. I highly recommend it...although I'll give a heads-up that your application process as a convert may not always be smooth-sailing (I went back in 2006).